by Chris Haven

WE TAKE OUR SEATS. It is a classroom populated with desks from the time when desks were made seagreen with metal piping for maximum discomfort. The linoleum below is tuberculosis yellow, the color of bad decisions. A scattering of students fills a third of the seats, everyone sitting at least a desk apart.

Some of us glance at our course schedule: POPULAR ETHICS. It’s unclear how this class made enrollment, if we even chose it in the first place. Finally the professor enters, loiters in front of the only green chalkboard left on the planet.

With a finger of yellow chalk, the following message squeals onto the board: GIVE YOUR GIFT.

Did we mention the box on every desk? Each is wrapped with a different paper that suggests a different celebration: wedding shower, birthday, religious holiday. The professor angles his body to the class, emphasizing his conglomerate nose, and by general silent consensus we agree that we will be given no more instructions.

We operate by general silent consensus.

The experiment begins when one of us delivers the first gift to the most average among us, then scans the room for approval. That action is met by immediate and overwhelming silent disapproval. The most average among us picks up the gift recently received and gives it to the ugliest among us, then delivers the one already on the desk to the weakest among us. This is met with the silent approval of several of us, but an equal number signal disapproval of labels of any kind.

This exercise goes on for some time.

We redistribute the gifts in every possible configuration, giving one to each, a few to some and none to others. Nothing seems right until finally we begin giving our gifts to a single person, each of us taking turns receiving all the gifts until we settle on the one among us with the most fabulous hair, who is both hated and loved with equal vigor. We know it is not right for any one of us to have all the gifts, but time is running out, we believe, and even though the professor has left the room (when did he manage that?), we are certain we have arrived at the correct outcome.

We believe that the lesson, the true lesson, will be demonstrated in the opening of the gifts, which will likely turn out to be rocks or paper dolls or something of similarly ridiculous value.

We expect so little.

However, in the midst of all the torn paper and the glitter silvered into the fingertips of the recipient, as all the gifts pile upon and beside that intolerable desk, we take in the abundance and agree that these gifts are all pretty good, not terrible, pretty good indeed.

Some of us wonder if the resentment we feel was the point of the exercise, that one person gets everything and the rest get nothing. The person with all the gifts feels suddenly generous, but still, gives back just one of the gifts.

The person who accepted that gift? Left the room and never rejoined the class. Same for the one with all the gifts. Graduation gifts, maybe. We certainly deserve such a thing. We wait for the day we can select that one person to bestow a single one of our gifts, so that it might be clear to others what class we all belong in.

Until then, we wait for our professor to return. We gather the wrapping paper into large plastic bags and marvel at the waste, its expansiveness, and soon, it feels that we haven’t really lost anything at all.

oOo

Chris Haven’s prose appears in Electric LiteratureJellyfish ReviewBat City Review, Cincinnati Review miCRo, and Kenyon Review. One of his stories is listed in Best American Short Stories 2020, and his debut collection of short stories, Nesting Habits of Flightless Birds, was published by Tailwinds Press in 2020. Bone Seeker, a collection of poems, was published by NYQ Books in March 2021. He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.